Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis was an Indian statistician and scientist who invented the Mahalanobis distance as a statistical measure. He founded the Indian Statistical Institute and was instrumental in developing India’s industrialization strategy during the Second Five-Year Plan (1956–61). He was also well-known in India for his pioneering work in anthropometry. Born into an academic family in the late nineteenth century, he was encouraged from an early age to pursue his intellectual interests. After completing his secondary education, he enrolled at Presidency College, Calcutta, where he had the good fortune to study under Jagadish Chandra Bose, Sarada Prasanna Das, and Prafulla Chandra Ray. He moved to England to continue his education at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was brilliant and ambitious. There he met and was profoundly influenced by Srinivasa Ramanujan, India’s preeminent mathematical genius. Mahalanobis developed an interest in statistics while in England and was fascinated by the idea of using statistics to understand problems in meteorology and anthropology. After returning to India, he formed the Indian Statistical Institute with a group of like-minded colleagues (ISI). As a statistician, he made numerous significant contributions to the field and was instrumental in developing the newly independent India’s industrialization strategy.
Childhood & Adolescence
Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis was born Probodh Chandra and Nirodbashini in Calcutta, Bengal, British India on 29 June 1893. He was the couple’s eldest child. His family was fairly prosperous and influential.
Gurucharan, Prasanta Chandra’s grandfather, was an active member of social movements such as the Brahmo Samaj and had dared to defy social norms by marrying a widow. Gurucharan was also acquainted with several prominent educators and reformers, and thus the young Prasanta grew up in a stimulating intellectual environment.
He attended the Brahmo Boys School in Calcutta and graduated in 1908. He then enrolled at Calcutta’s Presidency College, where he studied under the tutelage of Jagadish Chandra Bose and Prafulla Chandra Ray. His college classmates included Meghnad Saha and Subhas Chandra Bose. In 1912, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree with honors in physics.
In 1913, he traveled to England to study abroad and became a member of King’s College Chapel. He led an interesting life in England—in addition to his studies, he experimented with cross-country walking and river punting. He received his Tripos in physics shortly thereafter.
Career of Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis
After completing his education, he worked for a time with C. T. R. Wilson at the Cavendish Laboratory. He then took a break to travel to India, where he was invited to teach physics by the Principal of Presidency College.
He returned to England following a brief sojourn in India. During this time period, he discovered the journal ‘Biometrika,’ which is published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Biometrika Trust and is primarily concerned with theoretical statistics. He developed an interest in the subject and was particularly taken with the utility of statistics in gaining a better understanding of problems in meteorology and anthropology.
He returned to India in 1922 and was appointed Professor of Physics at Presidency College; he spent the next three decades teaching physics at the college. However, his position as a physics professor did not deter him from pursuing his newly discovered interest in statistics.
He was encouraged to pursue statistics by Acharya Brajendra Nath Seal. Initially, Mahalanobis focused on analyzing university examination results, anthropometric measurements of Calcutta’s Anglo-Indians, and some meteorological issues.
He also had a large number of colleagues who shared his enthusiasm for statistical studies. He initially established a Statistical Laboratory in his room at the Presidency College, Calcutta, with their assistance. This group eventually resulted in the formation of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), which was incorporated in 1932.
Initially housed in the Presidency College’s Physics Department, the institute grew with the assistance of Pitamber Pant, a secretary to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Several of Mahalanobis’ colleagues made seminal contributions to the institute, including S. S. Bose, J. M. Sengupta, R. C. Bose, S. N. Roy, K. R. Nair, R. R. Bahadur, and Gopinath Kallianpur.
The institute expanded significantly during the 1930s. The journal ‘Sankhya’ was founded in 1933, and a training section was added in 1938.
He was also a major influence on the development of large-scale sample surveys. He is credited with inventing the concept of pilot surveys, and his early surveys, conducted between 1937 and 1944, covered consumer expenditure, tea consumption habits, public opinion, crop acreage, and plant disease.
The ISI received a significant grant from the Indian government in 1948 to establish a separate Research and Training School. Under Mahalanobis’ leadership, the institute flourished.
Renowned throughout the world for his statistical accomplishments, he also held several prestigious international positions, including chairmanship of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Sampling from 1947 to 1951.
In 1950, he established the National Sample Survey and the Central Statistical Organization to coordinate India’s statistical activities. He was appointed to the Planning Commission of India in 1955 and served until 1967. He assisted in the formulation of strategies to aid India’s heavy industry development as part of the Second Five-Year Plan.
Significant Works of Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis
In the early 1930s, he founded the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), which later became recognized as a nationally significant academic institution. Today, the institute is regarded as one of the oldest and most prestigious statistical research institutions in the world.
One of his most significant contributions to statistics was his 1936 introduction of the Mahalanobis distance concept. It is a multidimensional generalization of the concept of measuring how many standard deviations apart a point P is from the mean of a distribution D.
Awards and Accomplishments
In 1944, he was awarded the University of Oxford’s Weldon Memorial Prize.
In 1954, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society in the United Kingdom, and in 1959, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge.
In 1968, he received two prestigious awards for his contributions to statistics: the Padma Vibhushan and the Srinivasa Ramanujam Gold Medal.
Personal History and Legacies
He desired to marry Nirmalkumari, the daughter of Herambhachandra Maitra, a prominent educator and member of the Brahmo Samaj. However, the girl’s father objected to the match. Despite this, the young couple married on 27 February 1923.
He was completely devoted to his profession and continued to conduct research until the end of his life. He passed away on 28 June 1972, just one day shy of his 79th birthday.
Estimated Net Worth
Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis’s current net worth is estimated to be $1,008,000, based largely on the estimated salary and income of $289,710 that Prasanta earned as a Mathematician.